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Monday, September 15, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 52.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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All Aboard Wisconsin explores privately funded passenger rail between Madison and Chicago
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Gary Goyke, legislative director of All Aboard Wisconsin, is working to build public support for more passenger rail in Wisconsin.

Since Gov. Scott Walker turned down more than $800 million dollars in federal funding that would have supported a high speed rail connecting Madison to Chicago via Milwaukee, the buzz about better connecting the Midwest region via train has largely quieted down. But Gary Goyke says his organization is hoping to get the conversation started again.

"In the situation of passenger rail, the political reality may be don't talk about it," says Goyke, legislative director of All Aboard Wisconsin. "Well we intend to talk about it. It's our duty, it's our mission, it's why exist."

And where better to start the discussion than on a train.

All Aboard Wisconsin, which promotes freight and passenger rail services throughout the state, has invited city officials, local stakeholders and business owners to take a train ride June 21 along a route from Chicago to St. Paul, which will include a stop in Madison and end in Crawford, Wisconsin.

Goyke says the ride will give passengers a chance to see the scenery along the route and begin discussions to gauge interest and decide what type of rail service might best fit Wisconsin's needs.

"Our goal is to be honest on this trip," Goyke says. He says he believes people will be realistic in talking about the prospects and challenges associated with getting passenger rail. "We can't be naive."

Once Walker turned down the available federal funds, they were allocated elsewhere, says Ald. Scott Resnick. Rather than look again to federal or state funding for assistance, All Aboard Wisconsin is exploring private funding for passenger rail. That could entail investing in privately owned tracks that currently operate only freight trains. With a few additions, these tracks could be used to operate short distance passenger trains, Goyke says.

Resnick says he plans to ride along and is excited to join the discussion.

"A rail connection is not going to happen overnight," Resnick says. "But I hope this is a first step to unleashing economic potential between Madison and Chicago."

Ald. Anita Weier, who sits on the city's Transit and Parking Commission, would also like to see passenger rail arrive in Madison. She says she was "sad" to see the state turn down the high speed rail offer.

"I thought that it would've been a great thing for Madison and for Wisconsin," Weier says. "We're going to be back in the boondocks without it, frankly."

But she says there are "a lot of ifs" regarding what a private passenger rail service would look like between the cities. She says she would not be attending Saturday's event due to the "fairly expensive" cost. Goyke says participating in the train ride costs $45 for city officials or city staff members, which is in compliance with city and county law.

Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison, Inc., says the future economic growth and development of Madison will depend on the city being able to connect easily to Milwaukee and Chicago.

"That triangle connects us not just to the rest of the country, but to the world," Schmitz says.

Schmitz is uncertain whether a representative from DMI would be attending Saturday's train ride discussion.

The impact of the Madison community, including such institutions as the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, will always be limited if there is a lack of access by rail to other major cities, she adds.

Beyond the economic benefits, Goyke says rail is environmentally friendly and a necessary option for young professionals who choose not to own a car. The elderly and others who don't drive or have access to other forms of transit are also ready customers.

All Aboard Wisconsin has hosted a summit and four community forums around the state over the past 18 months. Following Saturday's train ride, the group plans to draft up a report and share it with the public.

"We're collecting ideas and trying to collaborate to say if we can't do it this way, let's think about doing it another way," Goyke says. "We're not going to let this issue disappear."

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